Evidence withheld

Meredith Emerson

Nobody wants Hustler magazine to acquire and publish post-mortem photos of Meredith Emerson, the hiker abducted and murdered in Dawson County in 2008.  In response, it’s easy to support legislation by Rep. Jill Chambers to tighten Georgia’s Open Records Act, restricting public access to crime scene photos from closed criminal investigations.  The suggestion that Hustler would publish a photo of Emerson’s nude, dismembered body is outrageous.

Hustler has a weird history of pushing First Amendment limits like this.  As a result, the blowback of Chambers’ measure may make it more difficult for legitimate independent reporters and investigators to do their jobs.

Dorothy "Dolly" Hearn

Here’s an example:  In 1990, an Augusta woman named Dorothy “Dolly” Hearn died from a gunshot wound.  The coroner in Richmond County ruled the death a suicide.  But photos from the  crime scene, showing the positioning of Hearn’s body, raised questions about whether the wound was really self-inflicted.

Unfortunately, no reporters asked about the Hearn case until the 2004 death of Jennifer Corbin in Gwinnett County.  Like Hearn, Corbin died of a gunshot wound.   Both women were found with pistols next to them, positioned as if they’d taken their own lives.

Jennifer Corbin’s husband, dentist Barton Corbin, had dated Dolly Hearn.  In 2006, Corbin pleaded guilty to both murders.

After the case was closed, the Gwinnett County District Attorney’s office allowed reporters to view the case files.  I was among them.  Among other documents, the files contained crime scene photos of Hearn and Mrs. Corbin.  Although I produced a story based on my review of those files, I never considered duplicating the photos.  Even local TV news has standards of taste.

Jennifer and Barton Corbin

It’s regrettable that no reporter raised questions about the Hearn case following her death.  Had that been the case, the homicidal dentist might have never had the opportunity to kill again.  In order to pose knowledgeable questions about Hearn’s case, a reporter would have needed access to the crime scene photographs.

Under Chambers’ legislation, that review would likely be more difficult.  At this writing, it’s unclear whether Chambers’ bill would outlaw the reproduction or the mere review of crime scene photos.  But either one is problematic.

Images of President Kennedy’s autopsy photos have circulated for years, fueling legitimate inquiry into the circumstances of his assassination.  Yes, it’s also included some crackpots.  But crackpots come with the defense of the First Amendment.  Ask anybody who has held their breath and defended the Ku Klux Klan’s right to assemble and speak.

Hustler is easily characterized as a crackpot media entity.  It also has a circulation of close to a half million.

Chambers told me that legitimate reporters could go to court to access crime scene photos under her legislation.  That, too, is problematic.  The Hearn case shows that mainstream media had no interest in it once  it was ruled a suicide.  But it’s the kind of case that, if it surfaced today, could interest bloggers and other new media.  Those folks might develop the kind of single-minded interest needed for a case like Hearn’s.  Yet they’d lack the resources to go to court for access.

Likewise, you’d have to convince a judge to agree to release the photos.  But if you don’t know what the photos actually show, you might have trouble describing why you’d need to see them.

None of this was a problem until Hustler surfaced with its demand to see crime scene photos of the Emerson case.  Hustler deserves some credit for occasionally pushing the First Amendment envelope over the years.  But in this case, the push-back will harm the cause of open government.

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About live apt fire

Doug Richards is a reporter at WXIA-TV. This is his personal blog. WXIA-TV has nothing whatsoever to do with this blog, under any circumstances, in any form. For anything written herein, Doug accepts sole credit and full blame. Follow him on Twitter: @richardsdoug. All rights reserved. Thanks for visiting.

9 thoughts on “Evidence withheld

  1. drjay

    if there is going to be any legislation at all, i wonder if the goal might be to limit what can be done with the photos as opposed to actual access to them, it seems like it might be perfectly reasonable to prohibit the commercial publication of them and still allow media access, just a thought…

    Reply
  2. griftdrift

    That’s a very good point, Jay. We should be able to craft a law that allows a judge to take into account “intent”. I would suggest we look to the Earnhardt Law Florida passed after the Intimidator’s tragic death.

    Reply
  3. Gil Hearn

    You bring up some good points. In the case of my sister Dolly’s death, there were plenty of questions asked at the time of her death but not by the media. Law enforcement was unwilling to listen to the family, friends, and a private investigator hired by the family despite an overwhelming amount of evidence. The crime scene and evidence were not handled correctly, and from the beginning, law enforcement assumed that it was a suicide and proceeded on that basis. It was ultimately modern blood spatter analysis by more informed authorities after Jennifer’s death that ruled out suicide as the cause of Dolly’s death. Times and attitudes have somewhat changed for the better since 1990. Hopefully suicide will no longer be a blind assumption, and complaints of stalking and abuse will not be taken lightly by authorities. It is important to enable reporters access to he information needed, and it is essential that law enforcement perform its duties in the highest and best manner.

    It’s also interesting to note that the TV media (though not local) have felt that crime scene photos of both Jennifer and Dolly’s death on national TV are fair game without the family’s permission. This was after Corbin plead guilty. Victims’ rights still have a ways to go, and I think that’s at the heart of Chambers’ pursuit. Perhaps a delineation between “closed” and unsolved cases should be made in determining the guidelines under which photos are released. There is no easy answer.

    Reply
    1. live apt fire Post author

      Hi Gil– Thanks for commenting. Your comment ended up in my spam bin, for some reason. I regret I didn’t find it sooner. Living in Washington GA, adjacent to a small market like Augusta, I can see how it might have been difficult to convince a reporter to look at this case. I can also see why your family, which stayed understandably guarded as this story unfolded, might have been reluctant to “call the media” in the first place. It may or may not have made a difference. I don’t know. Your loss is heartbreaking, still. I’ve expressed condolences to your family before. Please accept them again.

      Reply
  4. Jeff

    Doug – enjoy the site a lot and I agree with most of what you wrote except the part about reporters asking questions in 1990. What would give them a reason? I’ve worked in a newsroom for 15 years and once it’s a “routine” suicide we move on. Other than a conspiracy theory what would raise the suspicion? Why would any reporter randomly go look at photos from a suicide to see if it really were a suicide? Very unfortunate the dentist had to kill again to be caught but I find it a stretch to put the burden of that on a reporter 14 years earlier. But that’s my humble opinion… which most people think smells like the back of a live truck on a hot July day.

    Reply
  5. Dickson

    how often in the course of our days and weeks, do we as relatively mainstream people, discuss Hustler Magazine, that notorious rag, and offer them anything near credence? we have now.

    Reply
  6. ProgressivePeach

    I consider Hustler pushing the boundries of the First Amendment in a tasteless way to the the same as all the Pro-Carry gun nuts pushing the boundaries of the Second Amendment. Do they have a right to do it? Yes, technically. Is it the right thing to do? No. Whackaloons like Larry Flint and the Gunnutters make it hard for the rest of us who understand the gray areas to keep our society working. Oh, and they’re dicks, too.

    Reply
  7. sryWindows 7 Activation Key

    consider Hustler pushing the boundries of the First Amendment in a tasteless way to the the same as all the Pro-Carry gun nuts pushing the boundaries of the Second Amendment. Do they have a right to do it? Yes, technically. Is it the right thing to do? No. Whackaloons like Larry Flint and the Gunnutters make it hard for the rest of us who understand

    Reply

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